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Agony Aunt
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  Agony Aunt

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This is me sitting on an old sofa in the communal gardens on the canal side of Bristol Gardens, London in, maybe 1980. I forget who the photographer was – maybe Rachel Calhoun, Doll By Doll guitarist Joe Shaw’s wife at the time. Anyway, I can tell it’s a woman because I’ve got my nauseating smirk on that I would never do for a bloke photographer – maybe Sheila Burnett, a lovely photographer who once did a shoot of me, Robert Bly and Richard Olivier, then managed to lose the whole thing forever – “I put it on the kitchen table, went to pick up the post and when I came back it was gone – everything” or something like that.

Bristol Gardens was a wholly squatted street of great renown in the seventies and eighties, and not for good reasons. There were two other streets adjoining it, also squatted and equally scary – Formosa Street and Clifton Villas, but somehow, collectively, it was called Bristol Gardens. It was great fun telling cab drivers that’s where you wanted to go. They’d look at you slowly, and with careful hostility say “are you sure?” or “Do you actually live there?”

“No, I’m meeting a film producer in the George bar to think about using it as a location for a film about violent Scottish gangs, prostitutes, heroin addicts, daft western Sufis, totally lost New Age health practitioners, young aristocrats-in-hiding, intellectuals who have become gaga, native Londoners with severe booze problems, poets who have no poetry and desperate young rock bands”.
“Let me tell you my friend, you are going to exactly the right place”.

This was true – then the cab would crawl slowly down the street, past the hippy cafe, the general store which only sold custard creams and cornflakes, and the bookies, and past street life well beyond filmic parody.

“Jeez – just look at this” one’s taxi driver would intone. The houses were magnificent – immense ochre paint-peeling edifices with eerie Eastern touches of architecture – crescent windows and stained glass windows – I’d love to know the history of the building of this street. The streets around it are elaborate as well, but Bristol Gardens stands alone in its visual eccentricity.

There was then a great moment when the cab would stop outside The George, and a bunch of absolutely shit-faced Scots geezers of troubling repute would spin round and say “Here, Jackie man – hoos it gaun’ – whit ye spending drinkin money oan a fuckin cab fer?”

The taxi driver would give you a look of deeply hurt reproach that you’d suckered him into believing you weren’t ‘on the street’ and as you paid him with a decent tip on top, you could say to the Scots bastards “Ave jist bin doon the rekird company, an’ they gave us a LOAD a bread so whit yiz drinkin’ – White Shield?” Big cheer, dogs howling, much donkey-like laughter and Mrs Bonner, the redoubtable elderly Canadian landlady peering from the bar to see if there was about to be a problem.

I very much liked Mrs Bonner and she liked me – mainly because I sent her postcards from wherever Doll By Doll went on tour. ‘Dear Mrs Bonner – we are in Vienna. It’s very nice and we all had some cake – for BREAKFAST! But we are looking forward to coming back to The George next week’.

Her clientele was amongst the most wayward you could get in a pub and not be closed by the police. Almost every night, policemen would visit the pub without warning, walk around slowly, looking at everybody straight in the eyes, saying soft jeering things to the toughest blokes, like “Allo Bader Meinhof”.

Mrs Bonner never allowed credit but this didn’t stop folk constantly asking her for it. Her response was the same every time.
“GERROUTTAHEREYAFREELOADER”!! she’d bawl in a voice honed in Brooklyn bars.

I remember once my parents came to visit me when I lived here – they were stupefied by it all, but also couldn’t get enough, and being proper drinkers they quickly hit it off with Mrs Bonner.

On their first walk down the shop side of Bristol Gardens with me, we came across an excellent Scottish character called Jim McNulty. Jim was standing outside the cafe holding a knife.

“Oh, hi Jackie” he said as we approached – “there’s a bastard in there ‘am goin’ ae kill whin ‘e comes oot, even if I have tae stand here a’ day – aye, that bastard thair”.
I looked in the cafe. A few hippies sat looking miserable – I couldn’t really tell which one Jim intended to kill.
“Jim – this is my mum and dad, mum and dad, this is Jim”. I felt pleasantries were in order.
“Oh hiya – pleased tae meet ye” said Jim in a voice he reserved for normal adults and judges.
“He’s a fine boy ye goat here ya know” in approving tones, Jim led my folks to understand.
“Oh yes, we like him too” replied my father cheerily – “good to meet you Jim”. And with this we edged down the street to the George.
“I’d come wi’ ye, but a’ve goat tae wait fur this bastard tae come oot” Jim explained with a rueful polite smile.
We all nodded our appreciation of Jim’s dilemma and carried on – Jim turned back to the cafe door with a fixed stare.
When we were out of Jim’s earshot, my mum said “Is it always like this round here?”
I said “Well, it can be”.

My mother looked me in the eye, and in her finest broad Geordie street tones said “Yer livin’ in a street full o buggers”.

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